I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Later High School Start Times discussed at District Focus Group Meeting

Shawn Dennis, Assistant Superintendent for Operations for the Escambia County School District, hosted a focus group on Thursday, May 22, at the Hall Center. The purpose of the meeting was to explain and present different options on how more of a staggered start time, with Elementary Schools starting at 7:30, Middle Schools starting at 8:30, and High Schools starting at 9:30, could lead to substantial savings for the school disrict by making the transportation of students more efficient.

Mr. Dennis outlined a transportation plan which could potentially save more than $1.2 million dollars; When combined with the savings garnered by having teachers at the High School level teach 6 of 7 periods, the total savings of the combined initiative exceeds $4.4 million dollars. These potential high dollar savings, in the face of the district's tremendous budget crunch, got everyone's attention in the room.

Mr. Dennis gave his presentation via a PowerPoint slide show, and he also passed out written materials which outlined some positive effects that later High School start times have had in other parts of the country. Some benefits of later High School Start times mentioned in the literature that was handed out included:

1. fewer traffic accidents as a result of High School Students going to school after morning rush hour.

2. having a later start time would allow students to get more sleep-- The documentation presented pointed to the fact that High School students who get better and or more sleep do better in school overall.

An additional benefit described by Mr. Dennis that a later High School start time would produce for Escambia County Schools would be that at the elementary school level, an additional 30 minutes of instructional time would be created. Our current elementary classroom instructional time in Escambia County is well below the state average, and an additional 30 minutes of classroom time for these elementary students would be a tremendous benefit.

Opinions in the room varied, but the general concensus was that having the later start time for High Schools would have more negative implications than positive benefits.

Several Elementary school teachers were present, and the idea of additional elementary instructional time seemed to interest them. However, one teacher expressed the concern that an additional 30 minutes of time with the students each day would cut into the elementary teachers' group planning time.

Two high school students from Washington High School came to the meeting and presented Mr. Dennis a petition with signatures of many High School students who are opposed to the change. One of these High School students pointed out that as a dual enrolled College/High School student with her first class at 9:20, she was able to have a schedule that allowed her extra sleep each day for the past year. This student characterized the additional sleep as "extremely beneficial to her."

Several Parents in the room voiced concerns about the trouble their High School students might get into if school were to start after the parents were already at work in the mornings. "Would Truency become a bigger problem without parents around to ensure that students got off to school in the morning?" was the question posed by one mother. "I don't trust my son farther than I can throw him" she quipped, drawing a chuckle from many of the people in attendance.

Several staff members from Tate High School were also among the group, and the concern among these teachers was that later High School Start times would potentially devastate after school extra-curricular activities, sports, music, drama clubs, and students' prospects for holding part time jobs.

Mr. Dennis took in the comments, addressed questions in a professional manner, and explained that he would pass on the group's concern to the Superintendent and the School Board.

He then showed the assembled group a modified proposal that the Superintendent's staff is working on which seemed to be a compromise proposal. This "option 2" proposal would switch Middle and High School times and would still manage to save the district a little over $1 million dollars per year. "Option 2" would have elementary schools starting at 7:30, High Schools sarting at 8:30, and Middle Schools starting at 9:30. Mr. Dennis indicated that this proposal was still in the planning stages but that more details on it would be forthcoming in the weeks ahead. The parents and concerned citizens in the room that I spoke with felt that this "option 2" plan would be better than the first proposal, but overall--- most in the room were leery of any changes to the current schedules.

The meeting served its purpose in that it allowed the Staff to present information and receive comments back from a small group of parents and citizens. The take away I have from this meeting is that "Option 2", combined with a plan to compound district busses, could produce some very attractive savings for the district. "Option 2" takes the public's (and High School students/parents in particular) input and comments into account and provides what seems to be an achievable, equitable compromise.

My sense from the room was that the district's first proposal (High School Start times at 9:30) needs to be scrapped, and this new "option 2" needs to be explored further. It seems like a rational, realistic proposal.

My thanks to all ofthose who came to participate in the focus group, and also to Shawn Dennis for planning and facilitating the event.

As more information on this proposal comes out, I will post it to this site.

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